On February 28, the Women of Color Collective (WoCC) recognized Crystal Crawford ’91, executive director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, as WoCC’s 2023 Womxn of Distinction at the student organization’s annual alumnae reception.
The award is given each year to a woman, non-binary, or gender non-conforming graduate of color who has significantly contributed to the legal profession and whose work embodies the reception’s theme—this year, “Building Bridges: Fostering Wellbeing.” Crawford is the 16th alumna to receive the award.
“My time at NYU was so special,” said Crawford, who was a Hays fellow and co-chair of Black Allied Law Students Association at NYU Law. She emphasized the importance of community and authenticity for wellbeing, noting that several members of her community—her friends from Law School—were in the audience that night. Crawford said that her classmates as well as NYU Law professors Paulette Caldwell, Derrick Bell, Bryan Stevenson, and Leon Higginbotham have provided encouragement and inspiration throughout her career. “Such a wealth of race and social justice leaders and activists on whose shoulders I stand in the work that I do every day,” she said.
Crawford worked as a litigation associate at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips before moving into public service and nonprofit work. Before joining the Western Center on Law & Poverty in 2020, Crawford served in a number of leadership positions at organizations seeking to improve the wellbeing of people of color, including as a program director at the California Wellness Foundation, as CEO of the California Black Women’s Health Project, and as legal director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights.
“Crystal’s tireless work exemplifies the grit and dedication required to pursue justice,” said WoCC co-chair Sruthi Rao ’24 in her remarks.
While fighting battles to improve the health and economic outcomes of people of color, Crawford said, being authentic has helped her maintain her own wellbeing. “You have got to have a definition of who you are—and that’s an evolving definition, right?—and stand by it,” she said.
At the California Black Women’s Health Project, Crawford helped create the Black Women’s Mental Health Initiative in 2000 to advocate for policy change to better support Black women. The first step, Crawford said, was hosting townhalls and panels to ascertain where women were struggling. Grantmakers doubted that women would be willing to speak openly about their mental health, she recalled, but she stayed firm in her belief in the significance of this work for her community. The town halls were packed, she recalled: “Hundreds and hundreds of people were coming to these town halls and other forums.”
In her closing remarks, Crawford noted that a guiding mantra for her has been the Kwanzaa principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. “This notion of defining who we are and not letting other people define us, that’s how you foster your own wellbeing,” she said. “Making sure that you define for yourself what you’re going to do. Don’t let anybody discourage you from doing something that’s kind of out of the box.”